On Saturday, O’Brien was back in the news, this time after four men reportedly accused him of “inappropriate acts” dating back to the 1980s.
By Monday, O’Brien had resigned as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh and announced he would skip the conclave.
From champion of married priests to disgraced churchman within 72 hours, O’Brien’s trajectory is stunning but also emblematic of the frenetic and fever-pitched campaigning that occurs during the tiny window between a pope’s death or resignation and the election of his successor.
The interregnum lasts a few weeks at most, when church leaders and various interest groups can openly voice their views to try to influence the future course of Roman Catholicism. It is also a time when the media act as the chief means for vetting any potential candidate whose track record, views and character might otherwise remain a mystery to the public and even many of his fellow cardinals.
If the process is far less expensive and not quite as mind-numbing as the slog of a U.S. presidential campaign, the condensed papal version is not much gentler, or necessarily more effective. Instead it can be nasty, brutish and short.
“It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave ... that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions,” the Vatican said Saturday in a blast at last week’s reports of an alleged “network” of gay priests in the Vatican whose presence helped push Benedict to resign.
True, there is some justification to the Vatican’s lament, but the media scrum is also the result of a church that at most other times strongly discourages open discussion — about priestly celibacy or other teachings — and highly values statements that only support positions espoused by the sitting pope.
So on the rare occasions when a pope leaves office, either by death or resignation, it is as though an ice cap suddenly thaws: Catholic leaders feel free to voice concerns that they had kept secret, knowing that as soon as a new pope is elected it’s back into a deep freeze where their views will have to be communicated in whispers, if at all.
Hence the recent flood of comments from high-ranking prelates, as well as eye-popping revelations about dysfunction at the Vatican — from the “gay cabal” story to banking woes to bureaucratic infighting. Even Benedict himself has come in for unusually direct criticism, both for his record as pope and his decision to resign.
There was German Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, for example, a confidant of Benedict, recounting in vivid detail how he and several other cardinals had for years been pressing the pope to fire his second-in-command, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who many hold responsible for the Vatican’s ills. “He (the pope) looked at me and said,’Listen to me carefully! Bertone remains! Basta! Basta! Basta!’” Meisner told a German newspaper. “After that I never brought up the subject again.”